General's Order Put Thousands in Haifa Area at Risk During War

Home Front chief lifted curbs on use of toxic ammonia tank, vulnerable to rocket fire during war.

The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Major-General Yitzhak Gershon, put the lives of the tens of thousands of Haifa-area residents at risk when he gave the go-ahead to lift curbs forbidding the use of an ammonia tank shortly before rockets began falling on the city.

Two months before the beginning of the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, Gershon decided to lift restrictions that had forbidden the tank from use, and to allow the Haifa Bay-area ammonia tank to be actively used.

Had one of the 200 rockets that rained upon the city hit the tank, a toxic ammonia gas leak could have killed tens of thousands.

The restriction up the use of the tank was put in place some 12 months ago, after the Home Front Command came to the conclusion that it was not sufficiently reinforced against leaks.

However, in May 2006, Gershon decided that the initial assessment of the tank, belonging to Haifa Chemicals, was over-cautious, and approved the renewal of its use. His decision was made after he met with acting CEO of Haifa Chemicals, attorney Avi Pilosof.

Gershon based his decision on the estimated low probability that the tank would be hit. He also required that during wartime, the amount of ammonia in the tank would be reduced.

One week after Hezbollah began shooting rockets into Israel, Gershon reported to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Israel Defense Forces had removed 90 percent of the dangerous chemicals from the Haifa bay area, naming ammonia tanks specifically in his report.

According to chemical removal reports, however, there was still a considerable amount of ammonia in the tank at the time of Gershon's report to the government.

When asked about the discrepancy, Gershon replied, "I wasn't referring to a specific tank [in the report], I was referring to all dangerous chemicals across northern Israel, therefore don't take it as a given."